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Matthew Stokes: On lotteries and abortion

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

One of the weirder aspects of our modern, online discourse is the tendency to sum up our thoughts and feelings with images, particularly iPhone emojis and gifs from movies and television shows.  I am prone to do this myself, so I don’t mean this as criticism. The last few weeks in the Alabama legislature bring to mind an image from HBO’s harrowing drama True Detective, where a cynical Matthew McConaughey bleakly quotes Friedrich Nietzsche and says, “time is a flat circle.”  Some things will apparently not change, and so here we are again debating an education lottery and abortion.

I have said before that I am tired of both issues, but here we are.  Let’s take them in order.

There’s an argument that the lottery is actually worse than other forms of gambling; in the latter case the state is choosing to not regulate vice, while in the former case the state is promoting it directly.  I agree in theory but in practice both positions are still bad public policy. The bulk of the revenue has historically originated among lower income customers, reinforcing the problem of the state promoting a vice.  Lotteries are especially bad because, though they increase revenue initially, the state remains on the hook for future commitments even when revenues flatline or decline. So why the rush to once again set up a lottery referendum?

It’s hard to believe that lottery proponents are altruistic here.  I’m sure some supporters are anxious to better fund education – a valid need, I would agree – but there has to be more to it.  I’ll throw out two. First, it seems like many legislators are tired of fighting this battle every year. They find it easier to acquiesce to the demands of lottery proponents so that they can move on other, more important issues.  That’s a powerful argument, and one with which I partially agree, for reasons I’ll return to in a moment. The second reason that many legislators have shifted on the lottery is that it allows them to give voters what they claim to want, while raising revenue without raising taxes.  I have written often about the perils of training voters to think that the government can provide things without their actually having to pay for it. If any legislator is quietly thinking as much, they’re playing a dangerous game.

But back to the first point.  If Republican legislators are wavering on the lottery because they’re tired, they have my sympathy.  I’m tired of the annual caterwauling over a potential lottery when there are other, more pressing needs that only our legislature can fix.  The recent report on our state prisons from the Department of Justice is a stark reminder. Yet it may be time to reach for a compromise. Lottery opponents should be willing to give voters a chance, but they should put a couple of conditions on any potential bill.  First and foremost, construct a bill that legalizes only a lottery with no expansion of any additional gambling – not just card tables or traditional casino games, but electronic gambling, as well. As currently written, Sen. Jim McClendon’s Alabama Lottery Act would allow for the continuation of electronic gaming and racetrack simulcasting in select counties around the state.  Opponents are right to fear this would open the door to gambling expansion within those parameters.

Beyond that, perhaps the legislature could agree to a ceasefire if the state’s voters refuse to approve a referendum.  There are too many important things before the legislature for this sort of thing to come up every single year. If the lottery fails this time, then legislators should place a five year moratorium on any further legislation and work to solve funding problems by other means.

The issue of abortion has also returned during this legislative session.  Rep. Terri Collins introduced a bill in the House that would effectively ban all abortions, save for a few very specific medical exceptions to be carried out by doctors with hospital admitting privileges.  Sen. Greg Albritton has filed a similar bill in the state senate. Collins has been clear that she hopes the bill will be challenged up the United States Supreme Court. It is no coincidence that similar legislation is pending in Georgia and Ohio.  Pro-life advocates recognize that the current Supreme Court is their best chance at overturning Roe v. Wade.  I share that sentiment.  I would love to see Roe overturned and abortion law decided at the state level, where I believe states could come to their own conclusions.

But I have admit that I also want the issue to go away.  Abortion strikes a nerve among voters unlike any other issue since perhaps the Civil Rights Movement.  No other issue in contemporary American life touches on issues of autonomy, humanity, choice, protection of innocents, religion, and myriad other concerns.  Yet the passion over abortion is precisely the problem as a political matter.  So long as abortion remains a legislative concern, to say nothing of its relationship with federal court appointments, a large swath of the electorate will continue to be single issue voters.  While I understand that predicament, and usually vote in the same manner, this is bad for our politics. For too long we’ve judged our leaders not by their ability to craft a vision, negotiate tough legislation, and persuade opponents, but instead by their fidelity to a series of positions that revolve around abortion.  This has created massive blind spots, wherein bad candidates and bad leaders are excused for a thousand sins because they get that one, very important issue correct.

I can hardly blame any voter for thinking this way, as such deeply held convictions should never be easily dismissed.  But maybe it’s time to force the issue. It has been twenty-seven years since the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision.  Science, medicine, and public opinion has shifted since 1992, thanks in large measure to improved ultrasound technology.  

This sort of abortion bill was not central to most candidates’ platform during last year’s election, but if the goal is to force the Supreme Court to clarify the issue for a new generation, now may be the right time.  If pro-life legislators succeed, then the fight over abortion will be forced down to the states. If pro-lifers fail, then they could continue to work to persuade hearts and minds that abortion is a grave evil, and life is worth preserving.

In the case of both a state lottery and abortion, we need clarity.  Particular issues will always animate voters in any given election. Abortion and, to a lesser extent, the lottery have been problematic issues precisely because both opponents and supporters have privileged that issue above all others, allowing bad or incompetent actors to hide behind their support.  The sooner this pattern ends, the better.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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